At Camp Tawonga, we talk a lot about living in an intentional community. Every program (or meeting or conversation) is planned with specific outcomes in mind. We base everything around our unique mission, and we constantly consider the implications of our actions.
Six years ago, our intentions shifted. I went with 26 friends to El Salvador on Tawonga's first Teen Service Learning (TSL) trip, and camp's worldview suddenly exploded. No longer were we content to simply educate kids about tikkun olam, and cooperative community, and self-esteem and positive self-image. We never forgot those ideas, of course, but now we had a bigger task: activism and social responsibility.
The critical component of Teen Service Learning, the part that distinguished it from countless "service" and "mission" trips, was the learning. We'd spend the morning, for example, building an irrigation system alongside peasant farmers, and then in the afternoon we'd learn about the international issues surrounding water rights, agriculture, and government regulation. This unique mix of experiential education was unprecedented among high school groups, and AJWS was at first reluctant to adapt their college-age "alternative spring break" curriculum, but our trip was such a success that they now regularly host high school groups.
Each TSL trip, upon returning to camp, spends a few days educating campers about their experiences, and sharing their new understanding of global issues and social responsibility. Not only do the campers achieve some understanding of the concepts, but the presentations solidify participants' commitment to the cause, and ensure that they carry the lessons back into their everyday life. Even now, when I mention my TSL trip, current staff members who were campers in 2003 tell me that they remember our presentation.
Here's how I know the trip was a success, six years (almost to the day) after our plane landed in El Salvador. I'm now a supervisor, and I'm constantly mindful of my trip, especially when planning programs and activities. Every single program at camp can contain values of activism and social justice, either explicitly or implicitly, and it contributes to camp's culture of mindfulness and intentionality. But it's not just me. Charley Brooks (who was on the El Salvador trip with me) supervises the counselor-in-training program, and she's helped make her supervisees aware of the impact that their programs (and regular interactions) have on campers. Molly Austin (who went on the TSL Costa Rica trip a few years later) is the assistant kitchen manager, and she's spearheaded a dramatic move away from pre-processed foods and sugary drink concentrates, replacing them almost exclusively with recipes made from scratch, and "aguas frescas" and other handmade drinks. Countless TSL participants now work in every job from counselor to maintenance, kitchen to office, and it shows in camp's overarching mentality. Not just intentionality anymore, but global awareness, and social and political justice, and providing campers with the tools to be responsible local, American, and global citizens.
And the proof is in campers' year-round life choices. Nearly every camper joins (or leads) multiple service organizations in both high school and college. Hunger this, homelessness that, Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity. Especially now that campers friend me on Facebook, it's easy to see that their camp experience has caused them to be far more involved in their community than any of their peers. The same is true in college. My old camp friends, now that they're in college, are now in charge of Hillels and Jewish student unions, co-ops and service organizations, and they invariably lead them according to the values they learned at Tawonga. Explicit or implicit, these values remain with campers for their entire lives, and THAT is the reason I've come back for twelve summers in a row.